NASCAR, the NBA, Rubber and the Rainforest

Original article appears in Huffington Post. Written by Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D..

Posted in

As you watch the NBA playoffs this spring, impress your friends with this fact: the idea for those Nikes worn by LeBron James and Kevin Durant was actually born in the rainforests of the northeast Amazon.

In 1775, French botanist Fusee Aublet observed local Indians there coating their feet with rubber tree sap and holding their feet over the fire, creating the first custom-made athletic shoes.

Obviously, top-of-the-line footwear has more impact on NBA players’ health, performance, and longevity than any other part of their uniforms. But here’s the catch: only natural rubber has the elasticity and durability required to meet the NBA’s exacting standards. Synthetic rubber simply cannot do the job. With 360 to 450 players in each season, the NBA literally runs on rubber.

The case is similar for NASCAR. The races, which boast 75 million fans worldwide and generate $3 billion a year in spinoff products, depend largely on natural rubber. Even today, when almost any natural compounds can be mimicked synthetically, natural rubber offers a toughness that cannot be beat. With NASCAR speeds exceeding 200 mph, precision starting, stopping, and turning can literally mean the difference between life and death. A race tire can be up to 65 percent synthetic, but requires at least 35 percent natural rubber.

Few realize that the origin of this unique compound lies in the South American rainforest. In the 1800’s, British explorer Henry Wickham took seeds from the Brazilian Amazon and had colleagues plant them in tropical Africa and Asia. With no natural pests, the plantations in Asia were a spectacular success, and most natural rubber today is grown in plantations across Southeast Asia.

The first scientific interest in rubber was the direct result of French explorer, mathematician, and geographer Charles Marie de La Condamine’s expedition in the 1730s. While in lowland South America, La Condamine made detailed observations on rubber trees, and when he returned to Paris his notes and specimens introduced rubber to Europe’s scientific community.

From there, a series of discoveries led to rubber’s increasing popularity and utility. In 1770, Joseph Priestley, an English clergyman and chemist who helped identify oxygen, observed that a piece of Amazonian latex was effective in rubbing out pencil marks on paper. The realization led Priestley to name the compound “rubber.”

Five years later, when Aublet observed Indians in French Guiana applying rubber to their feet, he never could have guessed the critical role the substance would play in the Western world, where it has repeatedly influenced the course of history….

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